Nancy and I stood in the basement of the United First Parish Church of Quincy, in a small white-washed cell, brilliantly lit by unflattering fluorescent light, and gawked at the four unassuming stone tombs laid out side by side without pretense. Here lay John Adams and wife Abigail, John Quincy Adams and wife Louisa Catherine. Their grey granite tombs said nothing but their names – no titles, no relationships, nothing. The church above was crammed with facts about their lives, but down below, nothing. The four-person tomb left barely enough room to walk around each resting place. We were crammed in with a few Japanese tourists and a few others that one could only guess why they were visiting a presidential tomb. We were told by the docent that we were as close as we could get to the tombs of any presidents. That this was only one of two churches in the country where Presidents of the United States were buried, (the other being Woodrow Wilson in the National Cathedral), we were told that annually members of the Adams family came and lay wreaths on each of the tombs. There were a few snapshots of the ceremony on a counter just outside the tomb in the basement hallway. Each of us in turn made our way around each of the four raised tombs. Like good Americans, Nancy and I each took selfies with the deceased to prove our pilgrimage had been successful, and to be approved by our Facebook families at a later time. We stood in self-imposed silence at the head of each stone, trying to feel something significant, trying to cry or not to cry, trying to receive the guidance of the Founders. And then we thanked our host, headed to our car, and met and old and dear friend for tapas and booze.
Earlier that day we had taken a three hour trolley tour out to the birth homes of John and John Quincy, to John Quincy’s stone library, and to John and Abigail’s place of death at Peacefield. We toured each house in turn, somewhat hurriedly, as the trolley had a schedule to keep and summers and Saturdays are peak season for visiting the homes of dead presidents in Massachusetts. We saw the rooms at Peacefield where both Abigail and John met their end. We marveled at the climate controlled library with skylights and a slightly imperfect tile floor. We took our pictures with statues of John and Abigail longing for one another on either side of the busy highway. We agonized over what souvenirs to get our son, John Adams, since the National Park Service had seen fit to stock stuffed animals of both Franklin and Washington, but no Adams; NO ADAMS! And we finally settled on a picture book of eagles, father and son, time traveling through history to America’s key moments, which could have been written by Stephen Colbert’s less talented progeny.
We deemed the visitations, and the entire day a success and, indeed, it was. But cramming so much in out of desire and necessity was a strain and allowed little time for reflection. We had walked the same floorboards as John and Abigail in their own houses. We had each in turn sat in the pew of the church where John Quincy and Louisa Catherine had worshiped. We were just inches away from the resting skeletons of these giants of American Independence, and yet in the heat of a hot touristy moment our thoughts were often on the snapshot, the souvenir, and the schedule of the trolley. Don’t get me wrong our visitations were profound, moving, inspiring, and worth every moment. But layered in around the experience was the press and rush of American life that demands that we do more, see more, and record every moment for the “Me Generation” to give a thumbs up or down to at a later and more convenient time. I loved every minute of our time spent in Massachusetts, but now as I sit home writing about it and considering it more fully, I just wish that I could have been more present for it.
Anyway, I can’t keep sitting here writing.
The day commences…